I’ve just finished a book that leaves me troubled over the future of civic engagement in the United States — and puzzled over whether it’s even worth worrying about.
Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort: How the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008) has one central thesis: since the mid-1970s, Americans have been voluntarily sorting themselves, physically and socially, into like-minded communities. Members of these communities have an increasingly difficult time reaching any consensus or common understanding with those of different opinion, and it has rendered our politics ever more rancorous and ineffective.
Exhibit “A” for Bishop is a pair of electoral maps, from 1976 and 2004, that break down the presidential popular votes for those years by county. But, instead of two categories (Republican and Democrat), he uses three: (1) Republican landslide victory (20 or more percentage points), (2) Democratic landslide victory, and (3) competitive race (within 20 points).
On a national level, the popular vote was very evenly split in both elections. But the big difference is that, in 1976, the United States was full of competitive counties. In 2004, competitive counties were few and far between: almost every county was a place where the electorate was overwhelmingly of one opinion or another.
Not only that, but 2004 saw far fewer places with Democratic landslides than with Republican landslides. Since the races were close on a national level, that means that those few places with Democratic landslides had a tremendous concentration of population. Democrats, largely, have moved to the cities, while Republicans have moved to the suburbs, exurbs, and farmland. (The pattern is ubiquitous, but not universal: in some places, Democrats prefer the suburbs.)
Bishop finds that we have segregated ourselves not only by counties, but by cities and even by neighborhoods. And not only by place, but by churches and other civic organizations. If we are, say, Methodists, we no longer simply attend our local Methodist church; instead, we drive to the gay-friendly (or gun-friendly) Methodist church across town, where we feel at home because the people are just like us. Rather than belong to broad-based civic groups like the Loyal Order of Moose, we are far more likely to join issue-specific groups like the NRA or the ACLU — where we can find easy consensus and be uncompromising in our goals.
One positive side of this is that, among our groups of sameness, we’re much better able to agree on goals and work together to meet them. With such a high degree of comfort, we’re able to make more strong connections with people. The down side of this, of course, is that so many of the decisions our society has to make — on a city, county, state, or national level — involve working with groups not like us, and, if “they” are just as polarized and uncompromising on their principles as “we” are, then the lot of us will have not only a hard time agreeing on what actions to take, but a hard time just agreeing on what the basic issues are.
As Bishop points out, we usually don’t cluster ourselves this way out of some conscious desire to eliminate difference from our lives. We do it because the community we’re considering moving to just “feels right” — maybe we like the wide, open spaces between people’s houses, or the bustle of activity in the downtown, or the availability of public transit, or the friendly people we meet. It just turns out that, when we select a place for a good “feel”, we’re unconsciously selecting it for its politics.
I don’t know what to think about this. On one hand, it saddens me, because it signals a collapse in the potential of civic discourse. It heralds the extinction of a sense of the common good. And that means, ultimately, a loss of cohesion in our states and in our country.
On the other hand, I want to live in a community where buses and light rail are valued, where people appreciate public space and civic art, and the vision of the good life includes meeting your neighbors regularly on the street. As much as I love Fairbanks, I get tired of feeling like some kind of pervert for thinking private goods should carry a high premium when they infringe on public goods. I get tired of the emotional struggle: God, do I have to tell these people again why the Steese-Johansen shopping complex is a civic monstrosity? I yearn to go someplace where they’ve already come around, where it’s easy — don’t we all?
Well, since Americans are so mobile, most of us really have that chance. And what should stop us? The sense of some abstract “greater good”? That seems like a 300-million-player game of the prisoner’s dilemma: Maybe society will be better off if we all stay put and work out our differences, but, since everybody else is relocating, wouldn’t I be a sucker not to do the same?
Against the backdrop of mass migration and communities of increasing like-mindedness, what possible argument could you make to keep people where they are? Why should they?
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